Oppression Olympics and the Pitfalls of “Animal Whites”

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Oppression Olympics and the Pitfalls of “Animal Whites”

One of the most common criticisms anyone participating in nonviolent direct action on behalf of nonhumans is met with is, “Why don’t you do something about starving children instead?” Or: “Black people are being murdered by police, and THIS is how you spend your time?” Or: “Why are you talking about nonhuman slaves when there are still so many HUMAN slaves in the world?” In short, one prevalent argument against pursuing animal liberation is that there is so much else wrong with the world, are so many other injustices at play, that the plight of nonhumans pales in comparison, and anyone concerned with social justice should protest human injustices rather than those against nonhumans*.

These sentiments are representative of a phenomenon commonly referred to as Oppression Olympics: the notion that some forms of oppression are inherently worse than others and, as such, oppressions should be addressed in order from most to least offensive or most to least destructive. Two common counterpoints to this, both of which I agree with, are that (a) all oppression is offensive and destructive, and attempting to weigh them against each other and mark some ‘worse’ and others ‘not so bad’ is futile, and (b) oppressions need not be addressed ‘in order’—they can, and should, be addressed simultaneously.

Oppression Olympics is played not only outside of the animal liberation community but also within it. Earlier this year, Gary Yourofsky infamously declared, in defence of his having given a talk in the illegal Israeli settlement of Ariel in the West Bank, that he does not care about human issues at all, so long as nonhumans remain enslaved, tortured, abused and murdered. “FUCK HUMAN RIGHTS!” he proclaims in one of his videos*. As a result, myself and many others in the animal liberation community have labeled Gary “not vegan” and ask that the broader community stop supporting him. While Gary may adhere to a plant-based diet and eschew products created via the exploitation of nonhumans, we feel his disregard for human life disqualifies him from being vegan in the fullest sense of the term. In Circles of Compassion*, author and philosopher Will Tuttle describes the vegan ethos thus:

Even though we may be vegan in our outer lives and choices, veganism, we begin to realize, is far more than consumer choices, talking points, and animal rights campaigns. Veganism demands us to question absolutely everything in us that has been modelled by our cultural programming, and to bring our thoughts and deeds into alignment with a radically more inclusive ethic that calls for respect and kindness for all beings, including our apparent opponents. We see that veganism, as boundless inclusiveness, is the essence of all social justice movements, and that it is the antidote to what ails our world.

By excluding Palestinians (and others) from his circle of compassion, Gary clearly and unapologetically violates Tuttle’s principle. He also has demonstrated, over and over again, a complete lack of compassion for his “apparent opponents,” expressing, among other egregious sentiments, that people who wear fur should have to endure rape*.

Similarly, Freely the Banana Girl*created a video earlier this year in which she suggested that the April 2015 earthquake in Nepal was ‘karma’ for the annual Gadhimai festival*, at which thousands of animals are slaughtered. It’s no surprise that, with highly visible white animal advocates like Gary and Freely dominating the Internet, many persons of the (non-white) global majority both here in the U.S. and abroad have come to think of “animal rights” as “animal whites”—a First-World/white/upper-class movement which has nothing to do with them and, in fact, one that does not even care about them at all.

In Ishmael Reed’s Blues City: A Walk in Oakland*, Ishmael writes:

According to a report from Pacifica’s KPFA radio station, the police in Berkeley were cracking down on the homeless, while on January 14, 2003, Berkeley became the first city in California, and only the seventh in the nation, to issue a proclamation that farm animals have feelings and deserve to be protected, which gives the impression that Berkeley’s city council cares more about the feelings of chickens than about those of the African-American veterans and others who are living on the streets of that same city.

This is a prime example of both how unnecessary competition among struggles against oppression—Oppression Olympics— is fueled and how human members of oppressed communities may have come to feel excluded from and/or overlooked by the Animal Liberation Movement.

These are some of the most obvious means through which the Animal Liberation Movement has isolated the non-white and the non-rich: by “heroes” of the movement declaring outright their disregard for marginalized human groups, and by legislative moves such as the one above, protecting nonhumans while the plight of many humans in a given city goes unnoticed.

Subtler forms of discriminatory behavior abound, such as the insistence of many animal advocates that going vegan is universally ‘easy’. It is not. Here is just a brief list of the some of the many, many individuals who will find it patently difficult—and yes, initially, perhaps even impossible—to even adhere to a plant-based diet, let alone convert fully to vegan living:

  • the 14.5% of Americans* currently living below the poverty line
  • those in prison, mental institutions, hospitals, or other places in which one does not have complete control over one’s food options;
  • those residing in food deserts*
  • those who live in extreme climates where produce is scarce or even non-existent, like tundras.

Every time an activist says that going vegan is easy, that activist discounts the lived experiences of these and many other people around the world.

So, what do we do? Should we all stop fighting for animal liberation, since so many people can’t make the switch overnight? Is this in fact a First-World Problem, incapable of the inclusivity Tuttle promotes?

No, and no.

For starters, animal advocates must empower those who currently cannot ‘go vegan’ by promoting initiatives that will help them do so. We must call for an end to food deserts and demonstrate, petition, or otherwise campaign for healthy food options to be available within a reasonable distance of everyone. This will not simply help those in food deserts go vegan but also be in keeping with Tuttle’s vegan ethos of compassion and respect for everyone. Everyone deserves access to nutritious food, for the good of their own health, and it is by solving this problem that we can increase the likelihood of folks living in these areas going vegan. We must also promote initiatives to increase access to produce for those in harsher climates, such as hydroponic agriculture**.

We must not only support research in these areas but also find ways to ensure that systems like these are affordable so that the people who need them can access them. It’s not enough to just invent a fancy system and say, “Okay, no more excuses; everyone has to buy this thing or else you’re patently unethical.”

Aside from increasing the number of those committed to animal liberation by practical means, however, and aside from supporting the rights to fresh, nutritious foods to all humans for the sake of ethical consistency, it is important to emphasize the ways in which non-veganism affects all human communities—not just the privileged class(es) of the First World—and how veganism can help. Sistah Vegan*, a collection of essays edited by Dr. A. Breeze Harper, explores the many ways in which veganism has benefitted a specific intersection of marginalized communities: Black-identified women. In her own essay, Social Justice Beliefs and Addiction to Uncompassionate Consumption: Food for Thought, Dr. Harper suggests (rightly so, in my opinion) that, rather than white First Worlders being the angelic solution to the problem, needing to go about educating all the Black and Brown folk about how to live ethically, they are in fact the cause of the problem—their addiction to animal flesh (as well as other unhealthy, unsustainable foods) has initiated an impending global catastrophe.

Here is where I find myself (and, evidently, Dr. Harper) departing somewhat from the tactics employed by my activist community. I am a member of Direct Action Everywhere* (DxE), an international grassroots activist network seeking to inspire a moral shift in which nonhumans are regarded as persons whose autonomy must always be respected. In an effort to promote this moral shift, many members of DxE avoid discussing health or environmental issues as they relate to animal liberation. They want—as do I, ultimately—people to go vegan and fight for animal liberation because it’s the ethically superior choice, the ‘right’ way to live—not because it will make us humans healthier or give us access to more clean air or water*.

While I agree with this sentiment and hope we are successful, I do think it’s imperative to share environmental and health-related information with the public for the sake of those who simply do not care about animals. Yes, they’re out there—those speciesist fundamentalists who simply can’t (or at least, for the time being, won’t) be convinced that a pig’s life is as valuable as a human’s life, or that a chicken’s suffering matters as much as a human’s suffering. In an effort to see animal liberation become a reality as quickly as possible, therefore, I am willing to play into the “selfish” reasons people should go vegan.

What Dr. Harper and others do so well is to present information of this nature not from a selfish angle (You’ll lose weight! You’ll look ten years younger! You’ll never get a pimple again!), but instead from the perspective of strengthening one’s community. In her essay in Sistah Vegan, she makes claims that pertain to everyone, independent of race or any other category, such as this note concerning water:

I recently learned that the World Resources Institute predicts that at least 3.5 billion people—that’s more than half of us—will be struggling with water shortages by 2025. Water is likely to join oil as a primary cause of armed conflicts. Already, multinational corporations have used their power within donor nations to force indebted nations to privatize some water resources. This is just one example of how, yet again, those who are already oppressed will be hurt the most by environmental crises.

In short, not only is animal liberation necessary so as to prevent water from being wasted on “cattle” and other farmed creatures—water which we all need—but also those who will be most negatively impacted by environmental devastation and other inevitable consequences of continued animal agriculture are those who are already suffering. Black and Brown folk. The poor. Black and Brown folk who are poor. So no, animal liberation is not “Animal Whites” (though it has, unfortunately, habitually presented itself as such). The plight of nonhumans is not a First World Problem. It is an Everyone Everywhere Problem.

Two questions remain unanswered here: How can we be more inclusive in our animal liberation work? And How are we supposed to address all forms of oppression at once? For the first, a few tips:

  • Stop insisting that going vegan is ‘easy’ for everyone
  • Stop calling plant-based food “cruelty-free’. Many plant-based foods— such as coffee, chocolate and even tomatoes* — are produced in ways that hurt and abuse human laborers. Cruelty against humans is still cruelty.
  • Stop criticizing other cultures while your own fails to meet the standard you promote. One of Freely’s many missteps in accusing the Nepalese of deserving an earthquake due to Gadhimai was to ignore that fact that thousands of nonhuman animals are killed in the U.S. and other First World countries every day—not just once a year. Imagine the public outcry that would ensue if an animal liberationist suggested that America deserved 9/11 because of hamburgers!
  • Stop celebrating discriminatory legislation as ‘victory’ for nonhuman animals. After pressure from animal rights campaigners Arizona banned “horse tripping,”around 2009 a cruel practice commonly engaged in during charreadas (Mexican rodeos). Horse-tripping is a move unique to charreadas and not practiced in traditional American rodeos. By legislating against this particular kind of animal abuse while ignoring the animal abuse in American rodeos, the law demonstrates its discriminatory nature. I see this as an example of racism, not an animal liberation victory.

As for the question of addressing all forms of oppression at once, the simplest way in my mind to achieve this is to erase those imaginary borders separating “animal activists” from ‘race activists’ and ‘LGBTQ+ activists’ and ‘feminist activists’ and ‘trans activists…’ etc. Instead, we could all identify as ‘social justice activists’ and strive to live up to that title. I know there are only so many hours in a day, but there is a plethora of ways in which we can all contribute regularly to two or more of these causes. I see no reason why an animal liberationist can’t spend one or two days per month volunteering at Food Not Bombs* or some other organization benefitting poor humans. Activists of every color, age and creed could be showing up as often as possible for Black Lives Matter demonstrations—and, when not possible, one can simply wear a t-shirt with the slogan on it or even participate in SURJ’s* campaign to post fliers reading Black Lives Matter all over the country. We could share articles on social media that pertain to a variety of social injustices, raising awareness of each and brainstorming with others about how to take action against these injustices. This is how we animal liberationists can uphold the inclusivity Tuttle suggests is vital to true, full-fledged veganism and distinguish ourselves from those few toxic individuals in our movement who imagine that the plight of nonhumans is a separate, distinct social justice cause, to which all others pale in comparison and which is not inextricably linked to all other forms of oppression and threats to humanity that abound today.

Saryta Rodriguez is a writer, editor, animal liberationist and social justice advocate. Her first book, Until Every Animal is Free, will be published by Vegan Publishers in August 2015. She is the editor of and a contributor to Direct Action Everywhere's blog, The Liberationist, and is the Founding Editor of her manuscript-editing and submission-consulting firm, Brave New Publishing. Saryta is a renowned baker, and values empathy, honesty, and above all, warm weather.

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